December 12, 2013

Pardon my contrarianism, but I don’t do most of my web browsing via mobile on the toilet or in bed yet. I do most of my web browsing on a computer — a machine with a keyboard, mouse and no multi-touch display.

So when prominent news organizations like the Wire and NPR launch responsive websites with mobile foremost in mind, it can become a little more frustrating to visit them on my 13-inch laptop.

Take a look at this screenshot from the Wire’s homepage a few weeks ago. It’s kind of a mess, with dead black space, confusing colors and headlines gone haywire (see my annotations):

Here’s what I’m not arguing about the Wire on desktop: that addressing the needs of mobile users itself caused the desktop experience to suffer. Mobile-friendly doesn’t have to mean desktop-unfriendly. But what I am arguing is that, considering how beautiful the site looks on my mobile phone and the emphasis editor-in-chief Gabriel Snyder put on mobile in his introduction to the new site, desktop seems to have been a lower priority.

On the other hand, the Wire’s solution for what to put above the fold when the site is displayed in large windows like those on desktop computers or 10-inch tablets works pretty well. There’s a lot of news to choose from, presented in the carousel-like fashion that subjects in Poynter’s Eyetrack Tablet study indicated they preferred.

NPR, meanwhile, went in the opposite direction. After its summer redesign, the site doesn’t change all that much from your phone’s browser to your laptop’s browser. That means, depending on your browser width, you might have only one story visible to you before you start scrolling. That makes sense on phones, where there’s really only enough real estate to effectively present one story at a time, but on the desktop it feels cumbersome to immediately start scrolling once the site loads if you want to see more content. Lots and lots of scrolling to find content you want on a computer just isn’t as pleasing as flicking your thumb to find more content on a smartphone.

I emailed the Knight Lab’s Miranda Mulligan, a responsive-design guru behind the Boston Globe website who recently led a NewsU webinar on the subject, to see if I was crazy to wonder whether my less-than-optimal desktop experiences are cause for concern.

Her response, which she later tweeted, too, is that I basically am:


Look, I’m not arguing against mobile-first or future-proof web design. But mobile rhetoric sometimes strikes me as a little — a little! — overzealous. Said Mulligan in an email:

If desktop reading experiences are less than optimal, that might have to do more with the fact that no one wants to read while sitting at a desk with ginormo machine. They read on the train platform, on the train or while waiting in line for coffee. They read on the couch. They read while on the toilet or at the doctor’s office.

And tweeted Damon Kiesow, former Poynter fellow and current senior project manager at the Boston Globe, the same morning I was emailing Mulligan:

Sure, but don’t millions of us still sit at a desk in front of a computer at work all day? And don’t some of us sometimes prefer the larger screen and multiple windows of a computer and the precision of a mouse?

Let’s look at the numbers: In September, for instance, 35 percent of visits to came from phones and tablets. That’s a lot (an increase of 10 percentage points from the year before), but so is the 65 percent that still visit the site on desktop and laptop computers. The folks at NPR told me over the summer that a 50/50 split was on the horizon. ESPN reached that milestone in September. About 40 percent of Wire readers visit on mobile devices. In all these cases, mobile is growing, and will likely continue to grow, but should we assume desktop is going to zero? Should we assume desktop is heading for a small enough reader share that optimizing for desktop should be a lower priority today?

Mulligan cautioned against focusing on current numbers, saying publishers should “try to read the tea leaves and look to make a decision based upon the direction of the trend.” She likened desktop to old bulky cordless phones: “Do we still use the Zack Morris phone?”

I’m not arguing that newly responsive sites are ignoring desktop — certainly not to the extent that previous designs ignored mobile. Too many sites are late to the game and have yet to implement meaningful mobile strategies, so changes to the Wire and NPR that offer better navigation and eliminate irritating pinch-to-zoom are a net positive.

But mobile-first talk that’s altogether dismissive of the desktop experience strikes me as almost too forward-looking. Just as the Orange County Register’s Eric Spitz has counterintuitively argued that some newspapers late to acknowledging the digital revolution ultimately overcorrected and weakened the print product too quickly, I wonder if we’ll see some sites overreach with mobile, prematurely accelerating the decline in desktop readership.

No question news organizations have been too slow to hop on the mobile train, but once on board I hope they don’t speed away from desktop too quickly while readers are still there.

Related: Atlantic Wire rebrands, launches responsive site targeting mobile | NPR’s new redesign aims to create a less overwhelming reading experience

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Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor,…
Sam Kirkland

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